Monthly Archives: December 2007

Forged Receipts and Muslim Researchers

The October report, “The Hijacking of British Islam“, of Policy Exchange, the right-wing think tank, alleged that a survey of one hundred mosques found that a quarter of them possessed or sold extremist literature on their premises. It was deftly timed to coincide with the state visit of King Abdullah to Britain so that David Cameron could ask some awkward questions about Salafi literature published from Saudi Arabia. On 12th December, Newsnight broadcast a revealing report about the research behind what was hailed at the time as a “landmark” publication. It found, with the help of a forensic examiner, Kate Barr, that a number of the receipts used to tie mosques together with certain books were forged by a Muslim research team employed by Policy Exchange during its year-long study. Some fake receipts had been printed out on ink-jet printers, the addresses or names of mosques were erroneous or signed by individuals unknown to the mosque management or dated on days when no bookstalls were allowed to put books up for sale on mosque premises. On top of that it was also found that in all likelihood one of the researchers had handwritten two of the receipts on top of each other — for two mosques, one in High Wycombe and the other in Parson’s Green, west London, forty miles apart from each other.

While a number of mosques look set to take Policy Exchange to court for defamation, Policy Exchange, at least initially, was considering legal action against Newsnight. Given that Dean Godson, the head of research at Policy Exchange, was prepared to back the findings of the report and the research team 100% on Newsnight, a hint of a climbdown is noticeable in the Chairman of Policy Exchange Charles Moore’s press statement on 15th December saying that:

Although Newsnight’s portentousness was unjustified, the allegations did look serious. It should be said at once that they need proper investigation.

It should also be borne in mind what was said by two prominent community members in the Newsnight report who both refute the charges made against their institutions:

[There is] [n]o problem with the thesis of the report that books promoting or undermining community cohesion should be abhorred, but to go from that to implicate community centres who are trying to promote community cohesion…is very demoralising. Dr Abdulkarim Khalil, Director, Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre

We have never promoted these books at all. If you come to our circles or hear our sermons we are very much involved in precisely interpreting the Quran and understanding it in a modern British context. Dr Usama Hasan of Masjid al-Tawhid in Leytonstone

There is no doubt some obnoxious material in some of the books that were mentioned, and hardly the sort of thing one is going to recommend to one’s child. As Soumaya Gannouchi notes:

Some of the books on sale on djinns, angels, dreams, signs of the day of judgement, and hellfire often make me laugh/ cringe/ both. […] Just like other religions, Islam boasts a vastly diverse library, covering myriad tendencies, areas, and subjects at all levels of culture high and low. Each has its audience. I may be repelled by some of the volumes on the shelves…

So we can hear prominent Muslim figures saying that there is a problem with some of this literature, but none of them is going to support the creation a new “dodgy dossier” to besmirch community centres and mosques, least of all recommend some kind of draconian policy response or Muslim community witch-hunting. A larger point is the fallacy the report operates under, namely that Muslims are robots: once you find the instruction manual, you can figure out how they think, how they will behave and how they will react. This fallacy of textual determinism is hardly confined to Muslims, but at the same time would such sloppy thinking be so liberally applied to anyone else?

The focus now falls on the Muslim researchers whose identities Policy Exchange say they must protect for fear of reprisal. Of course no one should take the law into their own hands, but there is a very serious question of public accountability here. In an interview with Riz Khan of al-Jazeera English, Dean Godson said (at 12.30) that “”we were approached by several groups of Muslims who expressed concern about what was appearing….”. So firstly, some Muslim groups selected the think-tank, and so did these “groups” play a role in selecting the members of the research team, rather than the “think-tank”select some neutral, professional and objective researchers? Was this approach a first contact or did it come within the context of a pre-existing relationship? Secondly how are we supposed to trust the rest of the report? One must now assume that the “researchers”, eight in total in two-person teams, had a preconceived bias that they set out to confirm and were prepared, in some cases, to forge documentary evidence for. So how was the report framed and constructed, and what definitions applied? How were the mosques and the books selected? Thirdly, the biggest fear is that this bias is sectarian in nature. All the theological tendencies named as “extremist” in the report have a history of anti-Sufi polemic to varying degrees (or of certain forms of Sufism), and, in a strange but revealing aside, Dean Godson said, under cross-examination from Jeremy Paxman, that the eight researchers were unavailable as they were currently “on a spiritual retreat in Mauritania”. The most fearful outcome is that the Muslim research team with be found to have a clear sectarian bias, if not institutional affiliation, that, once uncovered, will do much to harden the fallout from the recent political manipulation of Muslim sectarianism in Britain. If this turns out to be the case, no true Sufi worth the honour of that name would have anything to do with forgery, falsification or the vilification of Muslim institutions, no matter what sectarian disagreements there have been in the past.

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Filed under Ghuluw, Media, UK Muslim Politics, UK Politics

British Muslims, Europe and the Holocaust

The Muslim Council of Britain has announced that it is to end its six-year boycott of the national Holocaust Memorial Day and will attend the 2008 memorial in Liverpool. The Council has also pledged to work towards the establishment of a general Genocide Memorial Day as well. The executive committee’s vote was won 18-8. Some like Anas Altikriti and Daud Abdullah, the Council’s deputy secretary general, have spoken publicly against the decision, arguing that while it was a majority vote, it was won on the smallest constitutional quorum of members. Last year the vote to attend was lost 23-14, due in part to a backlash against Ruth Kelly’s stipulating the MCB’s attendance as a precondition for normal relations between the government and the Council. The Guardian reports that some MCB affiliates have threatened to disaffiliate over the dropping of the boycott. It would be surprising if they took the step of isolating themselves by disaffiliating so publicly.

Although Anas Altikriti argues that the MCB have consistently supported the boycott until now, Imam Abduljalil Sajid, who was there when the question about attendance came up prior to the first HMD in 2001, told me that the Central Working Committee voted 80-35 in favour of attending, but the vote was subsequently overruled. I would imagine that the threat to disaffiliate if the original motion had been carried was probably made back then. It should have been stood up to at the time rather than several years on, as has now happened. It is the right decision, to my mind, primarily for moral reasons and not for other considerations. The Holocaust Memorial Day should never have been attached to the just cause of Palestinian self-determination and an equitable two-state solution.

The basic reason is that if any continent should remember the Holocaust in particular it ought to be Europe. Central to achieving this is addressing the powerful current within Zionism that saw (and sees) the Holocaust as a central rationale for the founding of the state of Israel. For me and many other people, this rationale did not provide an adequate moral foundation for driving out and dispossessing the Palestinian people in order to achieve the new Israel. As powerful as this current is, the Holocaust similarly needs disentanglement from the misery of Israeli-Palestinian conflict partly so that its original European context can be made more salient. Such moral considerations are, however, largely immaterial to that most urgent task of finding a fair and equitable solution for both Palestinians and Israelis today, although, given current conditions, a large degree of pessimism about progress on that score sadly remains.

Like all cataclysmic tragedies, the Holocaust subsumes and exhausts all attempts to give it a single personal or political interpretation, including the one offered here. Yet we have to ask if it is right to consider the Holocaust absolutely unique, sui generis or one of a kind, in the sense that no analogies can be drawn from the Nazi genocide, to see its portentous shadow in other acts of premeditated mass murder, systematic discrimination, words of hate or the politics of fear, if the Holocaust is regarded as truly incomparable. It is not unique in the strict sense that all ethnic cleansing, genocide, terrorism and war, all acts of gross inhumanity, engender something of the common quality of human suffering, a commonality that is manifested in our desire to relate to and analogise from one dreadful experience to another. The brute fact of the plan to wipe out the Jewish people everywhere and forever through industrialised mass murder surely troubles our self-image as humans, created, as Muslims believe, sinless at birth, aspiring to know God and be His stewards upon the earth. In this sense the Holocaust is unique, and its magnitude and cold intent cannot be comprehended.

To my mind, Holocaust Memorial Day ought to be primarily addressed to the Europe of the present and future so that she remember and not forget her darkest moment during the blood-stained twentieth century, so that a future Europe includes all those who might be feared and stigmatized for being different. For instance, the recent history of the Balkans showed that this is far from an idle exercise and, partly stemming from this, there is a genuine fear and unease among European Muslims about their future well-being, even in Western Europe.

The particularity of HMD should be honoured for the reason that racial intolerance and hatred is normally manifested within particular historical traditions rather than in a generic, abstract way. Exclusive ethno-nationalism and “civilising” imperialism have defined their projects as pure and superior in comparison with their despised “Others”. This would seem to suggest that instead of a generic genocide day, we need to ponder and remember each of the atrocities against the Amerindians, Armenians, the Vendée, Circassians, Bangladeshis, Aborigines, the Maya, Cambodians, the East Timorese, the Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, the Iraqi Kurds, the Tibetans, the Tikuna, the Tutsis and many, many others. This is why the analogy with the Holocaust should be drawn to take a stand against all acts that raise the rights of one people over another. In looking forward to our shared future, the lesson of the Holocaust is primarily to forestall the new perpetrators of inhumanity.

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Defending Liberty: Not a Day More

The campaign against the British government’s bill to extend detention without charge from 28 to 56 days is gainng momentum. One campaign, Not a Day Longer, which brings together Liberal Conspiracy, Amnesty International, City Circle and Our Kingdom, is being run from Facebook, so please sign up here. One thing you can do is to write a letter to your local MP. Here is my missive to my MP, the former Secretary of State for Health:

Dear Patricia Hewitt,

I write as a very concerned constituent of yours regarding the government’s proposal to extend detention without charge from 28 to 56 days. As you formerly worked for Liberty (which is now opposing this bill), I’m sure that you will appreciate the gravity of chipping away at one of our most fundamental freedoms: the right not to be detained without charge.

Britain already has the longest period of detention without charge; by comparison, Turkey has 7.5, Ireland, 7, France, 6, Russia, 5, the USA, 2, and Canada, 1. All these countries also face a terrorist threat but have not seen fit to drastically undermine habeas corpus to the extent that Britain has, a fundamental right first promulgated in England over 700 years ago.

The government has not only selected an arbitrary figure of 56 days for the extension but has provided no compelling evidence that it is necessary. At no point have terror suspects failed to be charged within the current 28 days. The difficulty in dealing with encrypted computer files can be addressed by additional resources and expertise.

Skepticism has become widespread with leading figures like Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, Ken Macdonald, director of public prosecutions and head of CPS, Lord Woolf, former lord chief justice, Vera Baird QC, solicitor-general, and Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, coming out against the extension.

The alienating impact on Muslim communities, the impact on families with potentially innocent individuals being held for up to two months, and the erosion of the presumption of innocence, will in all likelihood work against efforts to garner better intelligence if the fundamental rights of those whom these measures will more adversely affect are stripped away.

So far, forty nine Labour MPs have decided to vote for the freedom and liberties for all of Britain’s citizens. There is no simple trade off between freedom and security. It behoves us to tackle terrorism by upholding our most precious rights and values. I ask that you will now vote against the extension in Parliament.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Birt

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